NATO nudges Obama towards Afghan troop surge decision

10:58, October 24, 2009      

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The key decisions on whether to inject tens of thousands of fresh U.S. troops into the Afghan conflict will be taken in Washington, not Bratislava or Brussels, but NATO on Friday nudged U.S. President Barrack Obama towards launching the surge.

NATO defense ministers gave their support to proposals drawn up by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, to redesign mission there after months of escalating violence from the Taliban.

The United Nations' top Afghan envoy also backed McChrystal's plan which would involve NATO troops switching the focus of the operation from fighting Taliban guerrillas from far-flung forward bases to providing greater security to the Afghan population with patrols in towns and villages.

In McChrystal's thinking, the switch in tactics would enable the international troops to provide protection for schools, medical centers and other development projects winning over the hearts and minds of Afghans who might otherwise be tempted to back the Taliban.

The plan also puts renewed emphasis on training Afghan army and police units, with the goal of increasing the local security forces to 400,000 from around 180,000 today. Forming Afghan forces who can take the lead in security operations is seen as vital for an eventual winding down of the international mission.

NATO and UN experts on the ground say the McChrystal plan could be key to turning around the Afghan conflict which has widely seen to be spinning out of the control of the international forces as a resurgent Taliban launch increasingly brazen attacks even in areas of the country once considered safe.

The problem is, McChrystal says, he needs a huge increase in troops to put his plan into operation. Although his figures remain classified, leaked reports have said 40,000 to 80,000 reinforcements may be required to provide security and training Afghan forces.

With doubts about the chances of success, fears of mounting casualties and widespread disillusionment with the Afghan authorities his troops are supposed to be supporting, Obama has been wary to commit the extra troops.

The White House has been studying McChrystal's report since late August and despite accusations of dithering it has yet to take a decision.

Senior figures, including Vice President Joe Biden are known to be skeptical. He would prefer keeping U.S. troops at around the current level of 70,000 while giving a greater emphasis on counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida hideouts along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the debate between Biden and McChrystal, the NATO defense ministers have clearly come down in favor of the general. However, if Obama follows them and endorses the call for more troops, pressure will grow on allies to provide some of those reinforcements.

If public opinion is cool in the United States to dispatching more young men and women to the increasingly deadly Afghan conflict, in Europe it is positively glacial. A poll released last month by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found around one-third of Americans support sending more troops. In France the figure was just 4 percent, in Germany and Spain 7 percent and Britain 11 percent.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ruled out sending any more, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Friday his country would likely maintain its contribution at 4,500 troops, although he suggested that could change after a major conference on Afghanistan called by Germany, France and Britain and expected early next year.

However, the Americans say there are a number of countries who have indicated they could increase their contribution. Britain has said it could add 500 troops to its contingent of 9,000 and Polish sources said the government is considering adding 600 to its almost 2,000. Georgia, although not in NATO, says it will send a battalion of troops next year.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is anxious to ensure that other nations do chip in, although it is clear the United States will provide the lion's share of the new troops. He is telling allies that doing more now is the way to ensure they can do less later by handing over to fully trained Afghan troops.

In return, the allies are demanding a greater effort from Afghan authorities to root out corruption and provide better services to the population. Afghanistan's western backers have been dismayed by President Hamid Karzai's inability to clean up government and the widespread fraud by his supporters in the August elections.

Nevertheless, they expect him to comfortably win the second round run off vote on Nov. 7 against his former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

NATO and the UN are hoping that the second vote can overcome the bad blood which has emerged among politicians within the democratic system so that the new administration can focus on the struggle against the Taliban. However, they recognize that the election will be no magic bullet against the widespread graft, inefficiency and tribal in-fighting which characterizes local government in much of Afghanistan.

Although many are hoping that the McChrystal surge can lay the foundations for a gradual international exit strategy, nobody has any illusions that NATO will be able to leave Afghans in charge of their own security any time soon.

Source: Xinhua
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